Want to sleep better?
Are you looking forward to spring and more sunshine? I sure am! In places like Canada that observe daylight saving time, “springing forward” means that warm, sunny days and long summer evenings are just around the corner. As a non-winter person, I’ll gladly pay the price demanded by the switch to daylight saving time.
And make no mistake: there is a price to pay. While the time change is an encouraging sign that winter is almost over, adjusting our internal clocks isn’t as easy as the sprightly phrase “spring forward” suggests. For one thing, it’s not spring yet: in Canada at least, it’s still cold outside, and many of us feel like we’re groggily coming out of hibernation mode. And the time change means losing precious sleep hours—a heavy toll to pay, especially for those who are already chronically sleep-deprived. For proof of just how sensitive we are to time and rhythm, look no further than the statistics showing a spike in accidents and cardiac events during seasonal time changes.
That caffeine kick is a double-edged sword
An extra cup (or two) of coffee in the mornings may seem helpful as we adjust to the time change, but think again. While a jolt of caffeine can make us feel alert and awake, too much can increase stress on the body by overstimulating the adrenal glands and triggering a “fight or flight” response from the autonomic nervous system. It may not feel tangible, but this fight or flight response puts us in a state of hyperarousal perfectly designed to help us fight an enemy or flee from danger. While desirable in a real emergency, this state of hyperarousal is decidedly not conducive to rational decision making, concentration and focus (while driving, for example), or restful sleep. Instead, caffeine-induced hyperarousal can leave us feeling stressed, anxious, and easily overwhelmed.
So, how does the autonomic nervous system work? There are two branches of the system: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the reality is a little more complex, for our purposes we’ll imagine that these branches function more or less independently. The primary task of the SNS is to stimulate the acute “fight or flight” stress response described above. This response to real or perceived threat over-activates the adrenal glands, spurring the production of cortisol—a hormone which, in excess, increases blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. The primary task of the PNS, on the other hand, is to counteract the effects of the SNS once a threat has passed, and to stimulate “rest and digest” activities—including sleep. The PNS restores the body to a state of calm, decreases heart rate, and relaxes muscles (all of which are necessary for sleep), while the SNS does the opposite. We need both branches to function well, but when stressed and sleep-deprived, it’s likely the SNS is in charge most of the time, leaving our bodies unable to access the PNS. The good news is that there are many ways to activate the PNS, and you can choose what works best for you.
How you exercise affects your sleep
Exercise “plays an important role in enhancing sympathovagal balance”—a fancy term for the autonomic state resulting from sympathetic and parasympathetic influences1. In plain language, all forms of exercise improve your ability to cope with real or perceived threats (aka “stress”), and help you maintain a healthy and responsive “rest and digest” system. Exercise also, of course, allows you to expend energy productively, reducing nighttime restlessness.
But while restorative exercise can directly stimulate the PNS, high-intensity, high-impact movement actually stimulates the SNS. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s good to know that a high-impact workout within three to four hours of bedtime will probably inhibit sleep (and, depending on your chronotype—i.e., your tendency to be either an early bird or a night owl—this window of time can be even longer).
Restorative exercise is likely to have the opposite effect, helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Part of the magic is that restorative exercise can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, the right kind of movement at the right time triggers biological processes that contribute to better sleep.
How to tell if exercise is restorative
Restorative exercise can be defined as exercise that addresses alignment and healthy movement patterns. There is focus on mobility and stability in the spine and major joints. The fascial net is stretched and stimulated, and balance drills, mindfulness, and breathing all figure prominently. Most Pilates and ELDOA classes would fall into the category of “restorative exercise.” A HIIT workout, on the other hand, would not be categorized as “restorative,” however beneficial it arguably may be in some contexts and for some people.
Since diaphragmatic breathing activates the PNS, even intense Pilates and ELDOA classes are likely to put you in “rest and digest” rather than “fight or flight” mode. This is especially true when the emphasis is on the exhalation portion of the breath cycle. Mindfully connecting breath patterns to movement also activates the PNS, because coordinating breath with movement usually involves slowing down our rate of breathing. This slower rate of respiration alone acts as a signal to your SNS, letting it know everything is okay: you’re in a safe space, and your PNS can take over for the moment.
Restorative exercise goes at least one step further when it comes to improving sleep quality: it can reduce aches and pains that may disturb sleep. Over time, this can reduce or even eliminate physical discomfort that keeps or wakes you up when you’d rather be sleeping.
Every video in the BH On Demand library qualifies as restorative because of the attention to alignment, coordination, joint mobility and stability, and mindfulness. Here’s one to get you started on your journey to better sleep through movement:
More ways to restore your PNS so you sleep better
Along with restorative movement, other ways to activate the PNS include meditation, playing (especially with children or animals), humming or singing, and spending time in nature. Manual therapy is also excellent for activating and supporting your PNS. While there is never a bad time for bodywork (am I right?), a change of season is a particularly good time to treat yourself.
Be sure to check out the following modalities that tap into the nervous system in different ways:
Sleep hygiene counts
You’ve heard it all before, but in case you could use a reminder, do your best to:
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, especially later in the day
- Limit naps to under 30 minutes
- Avoid heavy, rich, fatty, or spicy foods late in the evening
- Avoid or limit alcohol, especially in the evening
- Get adequate exposure to natural daylight
- Establish a bedtime routine you find relaxing
- Turn off your cell phone and close your laptop at least 30-60 minutes before bed
- Sleep in a cool, completely dark room
- And of course, make time for restorative movement!
Recap: Spring forward and feel amazing!
During the switch to daylight saving time, or simply as a non-pharmacological way to manage jet lag, irregular work hours, or sleep problems more generally, restorative movement can help ease circadian shifts, reduce stress on the body, and improve the duration and quality of sleep by:
- Quieting the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which has an anti-anxiety effect
- Lowering cortisol levels; reducing stress
- Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), encouraging the body to rest
- Allowing you to productively expend energy, which reduces restlessness
- Reducing pain and discomfort in the body
The autonomic nervous system broken down by function
|Parasympathetic Nervous System||Sympathetic Nervous System|
|Function||Control the body’s response while at rest||Control the body’s response during perceived threat|
|Activates response of||Rest and digest||Fight or flight|
|General body response||Counterbalance; restores body to state of calm||Body tenses up, speeds up, becomes more alert. Functions not critical to survival shut down|
|Cardiovascular system (heart rate)||Decreases heart rate||Increases heart rate|
|Pulmonary system (lungs)||Bronchial tubes constrict; breathing slows||Bronchial tubes dilate; breathing speeds up|
|Musculoskeletal system||Muscles relax||Muscles contract|
|Gastrointestinal system||Increases stomach movement and secretions, facilitating digestion||Decreases stomach movement and secretions, inhibiting digestion|
|Adrenal glands||No involvement||Releases adrenaline, which in turn triggers production of cortisol|
Adapted from: Biostrap, Hacking Your Parasympathetic Nervous System